Cockroach Brains Help Fight Deadly Human Superbugs

In the battle against drug-resistant bacterial infections, researchers have identified two possible, if unlikely, allies: cockroaches and locusts.

Cockroaches, widely considered a public health menace, were documented carrying almost two dozen pathogens that can infect humans by researchers in 1991. Locusts, meanwhile, are associated with a different sort of plague, as their crop-devouring swarms earned them a place in the Bible.

But hidden in the brains and neural tissues of these insects, British researchers have found at least nine molecules that are toxic to bacteria. In fact, the molecules were able to kill more than 90 percent of the meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria in the lab.

Infections by both bacteria can have deadly consequences. MRSA causes serious staph infections that resist treatment and can lead to serious complications, organ failure and even death. Meanwhile, E.coli lives in our intestines, and is mostly harmless, but certain strains can cause an infection linked to kidney failure and even death, according to the National Institutes of Health. Antibiotic resistance has also been documented among certain types of E. coli.

The bacteria-busting compounds in the pests' brains could lead to a new way to fight off these ultra-resistant pathogens.

"We hope that these molecules could eventually be developed into treatments for E. coli and MRSA infections that are increasingly resistant to current drugs," said study team member Simon Lee, a postgraduate researcher at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham in England.

Because the molecules did not appear to harm human cells in tests run by the researchers, they could potentially lead to new antibiotics without the unwanted side effects of drugs currently in use, Lee said.  

Insects often live in unsanitary conditions, so it is not surprising that they produce their own antimicrobial compounds, Lee said.

Lee presented his work at the Society for General Microbiology's fall meeting in Nottingham this week.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.